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« Badger cull - politics or health? | Main | Taking Liberties on DVD »

"Libertarian paternalism" unveiled

julian%20le%20grand-100.jpg The Independent today leads with a report concerning a stunning speech given last night by Professor Julian Le Grand (left), chairman of Health England and a former senior Downing Street aide to Tony Blair. The full article is HERE but this is the bit that will attract most attention:

Professor Le Grand said instead of requiring people to make healthy choices – by giving up smoking, taking more exercise and eating less salt – policies should be framed so the healthy option is automatic and people have to choose deliberately to depart from it.

Among his suggestions are a proposal for a smoking permit, which smokers would have to produce when buying cigarettes, an "exercise hour" to be provided by all large companies for their employees and a ban on salt in processed food.

The idea, dubbed "libertarian paternalism", reverses the traditional government approach that requires individuals to opt in to healthy schemes. Instead, they would have to opt out to make the unhealthy choice, by buying a smoking permit, choosing not to participate in the exercise hour or adding salt at the table.

By preserving individual choice, the approach could be defended against charges of a "nanny state," he said. "Some people say this is paternalism squared. But at a fundamental level, you are not being made to do anything. It is not like banning something, it is not prohibition. It is a softer form of paternalism."

Before we dive in and ridicule his grand scheme, I should mention that I have a certain regard for Julian Le Grand because (a) I've met him and, (b) unlike many people in his position, he appeared to listen.

Three years ago, when John Reid was health secretary and struggling to come up with a policy on smoking in public places, I was invited - together with Forest chairman Lord Harris of High Cross - to meet him and three of his advisors. It was a private meeting, just the six of us, and the senior advisor was Julian Le Grand (who Ralph Harris knew of old).

For five uninterrupted minutes Ralph and I talked about passive smoking, epidemiology, the major studies, how the evidence didn't support a comprehensive ban etc etc. When we had finished, Reid turned to Le Grand and asked, "What do you think?" Le Grand replied, "I agree with them."

For the next 30 minutes we had a very agreeable discussion (Reid, it has to be said, doing most of the talking). Nevertheless, we were struck by their open-mindedness, their refusal to lecture us about the impact of smoking, and by John Reid's obvious desire to find a compromise that would give smokers some element of choice, although he made it clear that further, significant, restrictions were inevitable.

A few weeks later came the policy announcement - later included in the Labour Party's 2005 election manifesto - that smoking would be banned in all enclosed public places with exemptions for private clubs and pubs that don't serve food.

Personally, I welcome Le Grand's latest ideas - this is what politics is about - and I'm certainly not going to reject them out of hand without considerable thought. The (very clever) phrase "libertarian paternalism" is clearly designed to appeal to both camps, and especially middle England. That said, I believe that "libertarian paternalism" is an oxymoron and any attempt by government (or anti-smoking campaigners) to hijack the word "libertarian" for their own (restrictive) ends must be challenged and defeated.

At the same time, government needs our help: we have to relieve the pressure on politicians, civil servants and advisors by demonstrating that many of the health scares we read about are grossly exaggerated and the measures that are being taken (or proposed) are out of all proportion to the risk. 

It's a garantuan task - the momentum is with the prohibitionist health lobby - but I wouldn't be writing this blog if I didn't think that, one day, those of us with genuinely libertarian views will prevail.

Reader Comments (5)

Government adviser Professor Le Grand wants to bring in smoking permits, these would have to be produced when buying cigarettes…presumably the same would apply for pipe tobacco and cigars.
What would be the cost of such a permit and how would ordinary smokers pay for it. Suppose you only smoke a few cigars at Christmas, would you need a permit for five cigars when celebrating with your family just once a year?
Let’s suppose the cost would be around £200 per year, how long would it be before the cost for the permit went up, thus giving even more money to the Exchequer.

What about criminals getting in on the act, by supplying smokers who refuse to pay the cost of the permit, with illegal tobacco products.

The whole idea of course is to drive the smoker into the ground, and this can only be done by a relentless drive…creating eventually, intolerable pressure. This nightmare is set to continue since the vested interests of well-funded anti-smoking lobby groups, and big pharmaceutical companies are too powerful to resist.

Will the government also consider an alcohol permit…or even a junk food permit, since this is bad for our health too…in fact permits for a whole range of things that are considered bad for our well being might be thought of.

Like a playground bully that has listened to intolerable zealots, this Government has no independent thought of it’s own, with a mandate that seeks only now to become more and more draconian.

This mindless persecution can only be brought to end when politicians are brave enough to exercise independent will and honest common sense, that simply doesn’t rely on next weeks polls, newspaper headlines and the incessant zealotry of the anti-smoking and health lobbies.

Until then smokers and tolerant non-smokers, who are our friends and neighbours – the nightmare will continue.

October 24, 2007 at 17:33 | Unregistered CommenterChris F J Cyrnik

Simon - You may have met Prof Le Grand and you say he at least listens. Well, whether these ideas are his or he been listening to some lunatic. Let me make it absolutely clear - these types of proposals for permits to smoke a LEGAL product is totally unacceptable. In plain simple terms, people should ignore this trash and carry on as before. I have had enough of cow-towing to this lunatic healthist fringe - Froxtrot Oscar to the lot of them.

October 24, 2007 at 18:14 | Unregistered CommenterBill

This sounds like carrying & sharing fascism. For the idiot to claim its at all libertarian is just completely balmy. Shows the man is ignorant about politics as well as being a meddling fool.

October 24, 2007 at 22:36 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Ian Dodge

So, John Reid and Prof. Large were in agreement that passive smoking carries no measurable danger, yet were still minded to say "that further, significant, restrictions were inevitable." Why so? Surely the logical conclusion is that such restrictions would NOT be inevitable - nor, indeed, required at all. This shows that the actions of the Government are not based on any logical foundation - nor yet out of concern for the populace - but merely following the usual tiresome socialist tendency of doffing the cap to the global nannies in the EU and UN (WHO).

This is a peculiar form of tyranny which comes from allowing health professionals - and their jobsworth accolytes - to believe they have the right to set laws to control people's behaviour, rather than accepting that we are all flawed individuals who need, from time to time to be cared for. They have been handed unbridled power, and have proven that they cannot be trusted with it.

Never has the Hippocratic oath been so demeaned by our so-called 'caring' professions. If Hippocrates were to be able to return and observer the scene today, his new oath would most likely be "F*ck Me!".

October 25, 2007 at 11:46 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Bond

Sorry, Simon -

I don't quite get it. His ideas seem totally deranged to me. Smoking Permits ?

Somebody, kindly inform me: every time I exercise my autonomy as a Grown-Up and 'opt in' to purchase a pack of cigarettes, how much tax am I contributing to the Exchequer ?

I'd HAPPILY pay a couple of hundred a year for a 'permit' - provided the tobacco is made tax-free.

I rather think the Professor should try and get out a bit more, frankly................


October 25, 2007 at 22:16 | Unregistered CommenterMartin V

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